A Prize-Winning German Writer Explains why the Traditional Mass is so Beautiful and so Important
By Martin Mosebach
Holy Mass and Modernity
When it became apparent in the early 1950s that television sets would soon be in many households, German bishops deliberated about whether it would be wise to allow or even promote television broadcasts of the Holy Mass. Indeed, people thought about such questions 60 years ago and they asked the great philosopher Josef Pieper for an expert opinion. In his opinion, Pieper rejected such television broadcasts on principle, saying they were irreconcilable with the nature of the Holy Mass. In its origins, the Holy Mass is a discipline of the arcane, a sacred celebration of mysteries by the christened. Pieper mentioned the lowest level in the order of priests — done away with following the Second Vatican Council — the ostiary, or doorkeeper, who once had to ensure that the non-baptized and those temporarily excluded leave the church and move to the narthex following the liturgy of the Word. The Orthodox still do so in some places; the call of the deacon, “Guard the doors” is heard in every Orthodox liturgy before the Eucharist.
While in Georgia I once experienced this demand, often merely a ceremony of a recollected past, being taken literally. A monk approached me, fell to his knees and apologetically asked me to leave the church since I, as a Roman Catholic, was not in full agreement with the Orthodox Church. I gladly acquiesced as I think not everyone has to be permitted everywhere all the time.
Sacred places and holy acts are first declared quite plainly by the drawing of boundaries, and such boundaries must somehow be visible and palpable. Still, anyone who has not given any thought to the dubiousness of filming the Mass has perhaps on occasion felt uncomfortably moved when they saw believers receiving Communion on television or as the camera rested on the face of a celebrant chewing the Host.
Are such feelings truly only atavistic, produced by ancient magical fears? Other cultures are also acquainted with an aversion to photography. It is as if it would disturb a spiritual sphere.
A Photograph of a Mass
So it is all the more surprising that a photograph of a Mass has become very valuable to me. I always have it in view on my desk. It is a black and white picture of a church interior badly damaged by bombs; massive columns still bear a vaulted ceiling but the rear wall of the church is completely collapsed, providing a view of a burnt-out neighborhood lying in ruins. The piles of stone almost penetrate the interior of the church. But the chessboard floor around the altar has been cleared. Three clerics are standing behind one another in a row on the altar steps, wearing the large chasubles and dalmatics of the modern “Beuron” style. The open Mass book is on the right side of the altar; we can see by the position of the celebrants that they are at the Kyrie at the beginning of the Mass. To one side, in front of a column damaged by bomb fragments, stands the credence table, flanked right and left by two adult acolytes in cassocks and rochets. The congregation is not visible; it must have been quite a distance from the altar.
A great feast is being celebrated here, as the High Mass reveals. The world has literally collapsed, but the calendar of the Church year mandates this feast. It is celebrated wholly, regardless of the circumstances of the times.
These circumstances, as disastrous as they are, retreat for the duration of the liturgical feast. In a unique way, my photograph captures the collapse of two dimensions of time: the horrors of war (who knows in what way the five men in this document have been affected, who of them have lost relatives and homes?) and at the same time an exit from this time.
It is an exit from the merciless power of their suffering, a turning away from the hopelessness of contemporaneity, not influenced by delusion, but in the awareness that the reality opened up to us by the liturgy is always present, that it perseveres, as if only separated from the present by a thin membrane, through all epochs of world history in one eternal Now. And this Now is entered by the partakers of the Mass through the portal of the 42nd Psalm, which is about the discernatio (“distinction”) between the supplicant and the “gens non sancta” (“a people not holy”).
Through this distinction, the people, all of whom belong to the gens non sancta, become a holy people for the duration of the liturgy; the actual circumstances of their existence, whether the horrors of destruction or the self-sufficient satiety of peace-time, dissolve at this boundary crossed in the liturgy. The focus of the celebrants on the cross and the altar denotes a simultaneous turning-away. Standing in a row, they are like a procession that has come to a halt — come to a halt because it has attained its highest possible objective on earth.
Measured against the 2,000-year history of the Church, this is not an old picture. It is not yet 70 years old but still seems endlessly far away from us today. An image of such radicalness in its triumphant insistence in the positing of a counter-world would not be photographable today without further ado, at least not in the world of the Roman West. It may be more of a possibility among the persecuted Christians of the Orthodox East who have loyally preserved their “divine liturgy.” Anyone looking at this picture must believe that the liturgy it documents is invincible; it has nothing to fear of any disaster.
My bishop has given me a difficult task. He asked me to speak to you about the traditional Roman liturgy, which was the dominant liturgy in the entire Catholic world before it was rewritten by the Second Vatican Council in the late 1960s to an extent that far surpassed the reform mission of that Council. It was an unprecedented event in the history of the Church. No Pope had ever so profoundly intervened in the liturgy, even though modifications to worship over nearly 2,000 years were — perhaps naturally and inevitably — numerous.
Changes in the Culture and Mentality
If we were to visualize the epochal breaks, the changes in the culture and mentality that Christendom has survived, it would make us dizzy. And indeed, the Church on earth has always been uneasy about whether it still resembles the Nazarene’s foundation. In every century of its existence it has had to measure up anew to its Founder’s prototype and has often enough been threatened with being torn apart — was in fact torn apart — by disputes over what the authentic Church is. The contradiction of the mission it was given has never allowed and will never allow it to come to rest.
Christianity is the religion of unrest and of contradiction; it knows no self-soothing. Following Christ means, on the one hand, self-sacrifice, anarchy, dissolving all social bonds, even those of the family, freedom from care, poverty and a love of our enemies that mocks all laws of self-preservation. On the other hand, it means passing on the faith, the great mission, helping the poor and the weak. That involves being an institution, becoming a system and apparatus, and that means, in the hour when the Savior appeared — which our faith understands as the “fullness of time” — necessarily becoming Roman.
In every age there have been people who found this contradiction unbearable, who considered the Church’s institutionalization, even more so her becoming Roman, the original sin and who wanted to end this contradiction. The indignation of these people is quite understandable. What they objected to in the institution is often enough undeniable.
It is equally undeniable that all Catholics today owe their belief to this institution. They owe to it the long unbroken line of bishops and priests, a spiritual genealogy which leads to the circle of the Apostles; they owe to it the dissemination of the Holy Books, a scholarly study of them, the object of which is their purity from corruption; they owe to it great architecture that ever allowed them to re-imagine the faith and art that often did more to proclaim the faith than the efforts of the theologians. Within a few centuries in ancient Greece, the image of Apollo transformed from the splendid cruel superman of Homer to the almost abstract principle of truth in Sophocles. The fact that the Apostle Paul and Pope John Paul believed in the same Jesus Christ in spite of all Gnostics, Cathars and Bultmanns, is also owed to this institution.
Being an institution always involves power, and an institution is exposed to evil temptations just as every individual is. Yet it was Popes and bishops who commissioned images from painters in which Popes and bishops were driven into the jaws of hell; probably a unique phenomenon in the iconography of power worldwide.
It was Popes and bishops who exhibited to the faithful the true way to follow Christ in the form of the Saints. The institution of the Church found its finest justification, however, in passing down the liturgy, which is precisely something “other” and more than passing down a religious doctrine.
This liturgy, which, by sanctioning the hierarchy, seems to belong altogether to the institutional side of the Church, is what reverses these very contradictions. It allows our faith to be a perceptible personal event; it frees us from the unpredictability of whoever is in power; it bears the possibility of the shocking encounter with the person of Jesus through the ages. Yes, it has changed on its pathway through history, just as the shape of churches changed over the centuries, yet the miracle is still how little it has changed.
One Religious Language for All Nations
The fact that the Church, which embraced many nations, had one religious language in which the sacred texts and commandments were safely preserved, the fact that in carrying out the mysteries the priest and congregation together turn to the east to the risen and returning Christ, the fact that the liturgy is a realization of the redemptive sacrifice on the cross, that the Mass is thus a sacrifice — all of this was completely uncontested in East and West. The Mass seemed destined to triumph over the law of European history of ceaseless revolutions, to be the common thread that connected not only the 2,000 past years, but also the years of the future, even if no other stone should remain standing upon the other.
Well, we now know, after 1968, after the reform of the Mass that bears the name of Pope Paul VI, this is no longer the case. According to the liturgical theology of Pope Benedict, the Mass of Paul VI and the largely lost Traditional Mass are one single rite in an ordinary and in an extraordinary form. And although I make no objections to this theology, anyone with eyes and ears is forced to admit that the characters of the two are sometimes so dissimilar that their theoretical unity seems quite unreal.
In my experience, the pros and cons of the liturgical reform cannot really be discussed dispassionately within the Church. The fronts long stood against one another with irreconcilable rigidity on this issue, although the idea of “fronts” presumes comparable strength, which was not the case. The circle of those who refused to accept that what only a moment ago had been everything, should now abruptly become nothing, was miniscule. To put it in the words of theologian Karl Rahner, they were “tragicomic marginal figures who failed in their humanity.” They were regarded as ridiculous and yet highly dangerous. With all the force at his disposal, Pope Benedict tried to defuse the conflict, certainly not for the sake of “peace and quiet,” but to rectify an aberration.
A lot of time has passed since then, and the reform of Paul VI has long since lost its revolutionary character in the lives of Christians around the world. To most Catholics the whole debate over the liturgy of the traditional and the reformed Mass would be entirely incomprehensible today.
Consequently a bit of the cantankerousness that this subject long generated has perhaps also vanished. The few people who cannot let go of the traditional liturgy may be a tad ridiculous, but they are certainly no longer dangerous. Thus today my objective is not to continue the dispute over the Catholic liturgy, but to remember; to remember the spiritual process that led to the genesis of the liturgy, one of the most surprising, bizarre, contradictory processes of world history.
A Sacrificial Ceremony
In the words of the Apostle Paul, in the Mass the celebrating congregation proclaims “the Lord’s death until He comes.” This death on the cross was, however, an event that was as remote as possible from any celebration and any ceremony and any rite. As much as we have gotten used to gazing at the cross in great works of art, possibly covered with gems in magnificent churches, to wearing it as jewelry or even seeing it as costly or cheap trinkets, we occasionally realize that the reality of the cross was a different one. At times, we must silently agree with the reasoning of aggressive atheists who fight against crucifixes in classrooms and courtrooms under the pretext that the sight of the tortured Christ is a burden, is psychological terrorism.
Horror at the sight of the cross can arise in particular from devout earnestness. In the second chapter of Volume II of Goethe’s last novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, after committing himself to the Creed of Nicaea, the old Unitarian and Spinozist cites the principles of the mysterious educational institution to which Wilhelm hands his son over: “[…] we draw a veil over those sufferings, even because we reverence them so highly. We hold it a damnable audacity to bring forth that torturing Cross, and the Holy One who suffers on it, or to expose them to the light of the sun, which hid its face when a reckless world forced such a sight on it; to take these mysterious secrets, in which the divine depth of Sorrow lies hid, and play with them, fondle them, trick them out, and rest not till the most reverend of all solemnities appears vulgar and paltry.” The Coptic Christians also shy away from open exhibition of the cross. They never attach the body of the Savior to it and they surround it with so many ornaments that it is not recognizable at first glance as a cross, an ornamental veil. The Orthodox focus on Christ Pantocrator, on the icons of the Crucified: Christ stands before the cross rather than hanging on it; just a few drops of blood indicate His wounds. The whole course of events of Jesus’ execution is, indeed, almost unbearable even to non-Christian readers of the passions of the Gospels. A man is made a thing, ousted from the human community; this is an excommunication if ever there was one. The knacker’s yard is the absolute opposite of the temple. Here, the absence of God prevails, nihilism, here the Tortured Himself is racked by doubts over the meaning of His path. Or as Chesterton said so powerfully, “God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”
Where out of this impasse does a path lead to ritual and celebration? The temple itself was profaned by this blasphemy, which for outsiders, who have not forgotten awe through pious routine, forms the deeply incomprehensible foundation of a religion of salvation.
This path would not exist if Christ Himself had not pointed it out. He Himself opened the eyes of the disciples for the relation between His slaughter and a feast of sacrifice destined for repetition. He Himself taught them to associate the Last Supper, which already stood in ritual context to the Passover meal, with His bloody sacrificial death the next day. The biblical words spoken by Moses to establish the offering on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and the words of the Eucharist, which proclaim the surrogate sacrifice of Christ’s blood, are nearly identical. Exodus 24:8 says, “Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you.’” In Mark 14:23, Jesus “took a cup […] and said to them ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’”
This is the clue to the correct understanding of the events: the foundation of a sacrificial ceremony devised for repetition. A rite is an ever-renewed repetition of an act prescribed by an outside will. But the framework within which this foundation should be seen was also clear to the disciples. Paul articulated it when he called Christ the High Priest who, however, no longer absolves the people with the blood of a calf, but with his own blood.
This is a most incredible reinterpretation. For the apostles, however, it was purely an awareness of reality: the slave’s death as an outcast becomes the free sacrificial act of a High Priest. The passio of death on the cross becomes actio — and truly the part of the Mass in which the sacrifice of Christ is visualized is called “actio” — the suffering becomes a deed. The deed of a High Priest. With Christ we have a new way to see reality. Christ brings about knowledge of this reality by thinking in terms of opposites that will not be resolved until the end of human history. It is true that Jesus, bathed in sweat and blood, gasped out His life on the cross. It is just as true that He was the High Priest who sprinkled the world in His blood and with freely raised arms, “took everything on Himself.”
The Religion of the Resurrection
The rite in relation to which His disciples understood His death was, however, highly specific. It was one of the richest and most widely developed rites of the ancient world: the sacrifice of smoke and fire in the temple, performed by a holy priesthood before the Holy of Holies, which housed the Shekinah — the invisible cloud of God made perceptible by the clouds of incense — which make the air heavier and God’s presence, incorporeal and yet irrefutable, tangible through appealing to our finest sense of smell.
Indeed, one could say that after the fall of the temple, worship as it was since the Book of Leviticus, the liturgical scriptures of the Old Testament, survives only in the Catholic and Orthodox liturgies.
But now it must be understood differently in this new transparency of the physical signs of the realities it also contains. This is the new antagonism of Christianity: “All that is transitory is but a metaphor,” to say it again in Goethe’s words.
But this ability to be symbolic does not lessen the reality of the transitory. After the Son of God became man, matter was given a new dignity that has its own law. It points beyond itself, but is itself already filled with God’s reality. The religion of the resurrection does not recognize an ideal in spirituality that overcomes matter; it recognizes not only the people but also the so-called dead matter as the substance of divine incarnations, so that water and wind and fire can become incarnations, and not merely symbols, of the Holy Spirit. This is the aesthetic of the Catholic liturgy — not to mention the Orthodox. All is symbol and all is quite real; all is merely precursor and all is fulfillment at the same time; all is the past and all is the future and both occur, indistinguishably and simultaneously, in the present.
The temple worship of the Jews was and has remained the covenant duty of the people, for the religion of Jesus Christ did away with nothing; it was never a “reform” in the modern sense. It was now fulfilled in the sense meant for it from the beginning, according to Christian belief, and made apparent in the fullness of time. Just as the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary was even then both passio and actio, the liturgy, which served the anamnesis of this sacrifice, was now also multiple things at one time. The worship of the people was now this sacrifice; each sacrifice in world history was related to the act of Jesus’ sacrifice. He was the real agent of the liturgy; He used the people only as mediums. The liturgy descended deep to the beginning of time. It celebrated Sunday as the day of creation; at Easter it reenacted God’s separation of light from darkness on the first day of creation and sanctified the water through the breath of the priest, as in the beginning the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters. It transformed the blasphemous events of Golgotha into their opposite, into highest sacredness; the gruesome slaughter into the act of reverence, as if to ever again make good the deicide, but also to reveal the reality hidden in it, the glory of the acts of the Redeemer. And it looked to the future, to the eternal heavenly liturgy described in the liturgical book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, the “marriage of the Lamb,” the liturgy that ever celebrates the cosmos and to which the people draw near only by their celebration. This is why the priests wear the alb, the white robe of the men standing around the throne of God in the Book of Revelation. This is why the “Lamb of God” is invoked in the liturgy. This is where the incense has its New Testament legitimacy.
“In this realm time becomes space.” The liturgy confirms this line from Wagner’s Parsifal. In the liturgy are experienced in one place the various ages and, indeed, even the exiting from historic time and the entering of that timelessness that eternally accompanies us. But the fulcrum of this turbulent time travel is always the Cross; this is where the beams from past and future converge. Therefore it is also crucial that a large cross stands on the altar so that the priest, while he holds out his hands as Jesus did, looks like a dying man before whose eyes, in earlier times, a crucifix was held.
It is part of formation through the liturgy that individual moments of Calvary’s horror are portrayed when the priest evokes them in his gestures. For example, the moment when the veil is taken off the chalice and paten invokes the moment the Christ was robbed of his garments. Upon breaking the host we recall not only the corresponding gesture at the Last Supper, but also the destruction of the body on the cross. And during the “Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum,” when the priest slips a piece of the consecrated Host into the cup and thus reincorporates flesh and blood, we witness the resurrection. These allusions perhaps explain what is meant when the Christian liturgy is called an “observance of the mysteries” (Mysterienfeier). The word mystery is always translated incorrectly in this context. It can evoke all sorts of wrong associations; secrecy is not far off, even intellectual laziness or that cunning that would like to surround irrationalities with a disastrous sublimity. For the purposes of the liturgy, however, mystery means no more than “event,” “act,” “phenomenon,” “occurrence.” An act whose meaning is only understood by the initiated: the truth that need not be understood, but looked upon, like the Redeemer Himself, who needed not respond to Pilate’s question “What is truth?” because His presence was the answer.
Here we must clarify a particular German misunderstanding. In Germany one who defends the traditional liturgy of the Church incurs one of the harshest, explicitly morally-tinged condemnations: he is an “aestheticist” who hangs onto the old form out of a dubious proclivity for glittering decoration and the compulsions of an antique collector. Such tendencies would be worthy of derision if in truth they were not an expression of superficiality masking sheer frivolity. In Germany we like to distinguish between the glistening surface and the deeper values. Preferably, deeper values are not externally perceptible. What appears “beautiful” is mostly untrue and morally questionable. When the word “aestheticism” is uttered, the defender of the traditional liturgy has already lost; his arguments are exposed as symptoms of questionable character.
It must certainly therefore be devastating for the traditional liturgy that it is beautiful; beauty defined as well-formed, symmetry, absence of arbitrariness, musical rhythm, clarity, classical calm, absence of the fashionable, perfected creation of a spiritual event. The intellectual historic process that led to this widespread distrust of beauty did not emerge only yesterday. It has its roots in that German vice, philosophy, an eloquent juggling of definitions that revels in the separation — impossible in reality — of content and form. It has roots in the Protestant culture of introspection and in the playing off, habitual since the eighteenth century, of pagan beauty and associated libertinage against Christian morality, which suspects the devil behind beauty.
Beauty, Perfection, Grace and Splendor
I will not deal further with this question, because I am speaking of more important things than the analysis of a national psychopathology. It is not about the beauty, perfection, grace and splendor of the traditional liturgy, as much as it possesses all of these. It possesses them in passing, inadvertently. For it is not the product of artistic work, artistic expression, artistic composition. The liturgy has spawned an almost immeasurable amount of art, but itself does not need art, defined as the personal creativity of a master. If we associate the concept of art with the conscious process of artistic creativity, the Mass has nothing to do with art in this sense because it is an anonymous creation, without authors, a collective work that unfolded over centuries as a living entity. It is as impersonal as a fire burning in a temple that is not allowed to go out for fear the world will fare badly. All its parts are arranged with utmost accuracy around the great theurgical act in their midst. Every gesture is designed to remind the celebrant and the faithful that what is acting and being expressed here is no individual human will, but the Divine Master. And because the intention is not directed at it, because no personal pretension dominates the space, because the sole impulse of the celebrant is subjection to that which is mandated, this beauty, that elusive quarry, not even noticed by many, suddenly appears. It accompanies what is right, barely more than a sign that human self-will has been silenced for the short duration of the liturgy.
Over the past four decades another term that has played an important role in the discussion about the rite of the Church is “contemporaneity.” This word is also associated with many misunderstandings. That something — a law, a custom, the use of language, a political position — must be “contemporary” sounds so perfectly normal it really requires no justification. As beautiful and good as things may be, if they are no longer perceived as contemporary, they are beyond remedy, no matter what else speaks for them.
As many moderate modifications as it may have experienced in its history, the fact that the Traditional Mass remained essentially unchanged from the first Christian millennium to the end of the second shattered all historical probability. It was not just something from yesterday, something old-fashioned or outdated, looming into the present day, but something almost incomprehensibly ancient in the millennia of human history. This Mass was already no longer contemporary in the 19th century with its aesthetics of Goethe and Wagner, Neuschwanstein and the Eiffel Tower. In the elegant eighteenth century attempts were made to hide the strange antiquity of the Mass under great orchestral music as if behind an iconostasis of modern sound. The Mass comes, we know, from Late Mediterranean Antiquity, an urban culture of many religions and a colorful mix of peoples and races, with philosophically enlightened upper classes and thousands of obscure cults of slaves and ordinary people. How it was able to hold its own in feudal, agrarian northern Europe is such a mystery, merely from the socio-historical point of view, that the phenomenon borders on the improbable. Certainly the un-contemporaneity of the liturgy represented a real problem in many eras and many eras of the past could have made it a lot simpler with a “contemporary” adaptation. And indeed, there were all sorts of attempts at adaptation, though they never altered the text of the missal or the details of the ceremonial language. They were rather production variations — to put it in theatrical terms — the famous Low Mass for instance, or the introduction of songs in the national language. We could say that now and again the Church authorities lost their nerve against the forces of the respective zeitgeist with respect to the liturgical program placed in their trust to preserve. The un-contemporaneity of the liturgy, which is in equidistance at any historical era, was regarded as a burden and not as what it is: a trump.
It’s tricky with contemporaneity: when you try to grab and hold onto it, you end up holding the dead tail of a lizard in your hand. Arrested contemporaneity is necessarily always about to go out of date. The radical form of the liturgy, by contrast, cannot go out of date because it does not belong to time, but moves outside of time.
The Use of Latin
Many arguments are based on the incomprehensibility of Latin in our present time. Have we forgotten that in past centuries Latin was also “understood” by only a few? Germany became a Christian country with a Latin liturgy at a time when the Germanic, Frankish and Alemannic farmers not only spoke no Latin, but also could not read and write. Incidentally the same was true of their masters. As for the Latin of the clergy, there was certainly a germ of reality in the satire of Ulrich von Hutten about theViri obscuri, the obscurantists with their depraved macaroni Latin. Recently, philologists have very vividly shown that the Latin of the Mass was not even the Latin spoken by the people of Rome in the fourth century AD. The vernacular of that multiethnic city was simplified Greek, Koine. The Mass was Latinized out of the specific need to render the sacrificial act in a sacred, exalted language that could compete against the high cultural level of the liturgical language of paganism.
Thus as a rhetorical linguistic work of art the Roman canon emerged in a form of rhythmic prose that is strictly separated from rhythmic poetry but that remains recognizable as an ordered spoken melody. There is nothing similar in modern languages; as a spoken work of art, the canon is literally untranslatable.
Nevertheless, even the most resolute advocates of the vernacular in the liturgy cannot claim that the faithful of past centuries did not know what was happening in the Holy Mass. They could not, of course, relate what they heard word for word, but there were not only words, there were gestures and processions, there were kneeling and blessings, singing and bells, and this entirety contained a message that Catholics understood very well for 2,000 years. They experienced theophany; God made Himself accessible to the people, was with them, and His physical nearness in the liturgy was just as reliably experiential as back in the Holy Land. No one needs to know more — or less — about the liturgy. Those who understand every word of the ceremony but do not know this basic truth have understood nothing of the Mass.
And it is, I fear, a mistake if we think or hope that the use of the vernacular made the Mass more understandable. This does not even take into account the great problem of translation (Josef Pieper, whom I mentioned above, said using everyday language in the liturgy could be decided only when useful translations existed) and everyone knows what unforeseen difficulties and substance for dispute and division this involves. The Sunday edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeiting (2) recently published a revealing but not surprising essay by a journalist who was born in former East Germany and raised irreligiously, who described a visit to a Sunday Mass in the reformed rite. He admitted that the entire process, of which he understood every word, remained a mystery to him. That’s not surprising. The liturgy is not catechetical instruction. Celebrating it, especially in its reformed form, requires a great deal of knowledge where that form does not, in its symbolic fullness, unequivocally appeal to a basic knowledge, common to all cultures and grounded in anthropology, of the presence of the sacred, of the experience of sacred space, of the gesture of sacrifice. To me, one of the greatest treasures of Islam is its five daily prayers when the faithful prostrate themselves before God on the earth and touch their foreheads to the ground. How much theology becomes unnecessary at the sight of people praying so! The prayers of the traditional Latin and Greek, Coptic and Syro-Malankara liturgies are infinitely more varied than that of Islam, as is appropriate for initiation mysteries. Yet worship, theocentrism, reverence, submission to divine will, entering another world with other laws can also easily be read in them, even if they seem confusing and hermetic to an outsider.
The rejection of the traditional liturgy has certainly unexpectedly resulted in one particular problem for the contemporary Church. To outsiders, including many Catholics, the Catholic Church today is mainly embodied in the morality it teaches and demands of its faithful, which, manifest in prohibitions and commandments, are contrary to the beliefs of the secular world. In a church centered mainly on the immediate liturgical encounter with God, these moral demands were related not only to life choices, but were specifically conceived as preparation for full participation in the liturgy.
It was the liturgy that specified the goal of morality. The question was: what must I do to attain full communion with the Eucharistic Christ in the liturgy? What makes me only able to observe this Christ from a distance?
That which is morally forbidden appeared not simply as the incarnation of evil, but as something to be avoided for the sake of a specific objective.
And when the commandment that excludes us from communion was transgressed, the sacrament of confession stood ready to heal the damage and prepare us for communion.
Surprisingly, it turned out that the Catholic Church of the past, which focused on the liturgy, seemed scandalously morally lax to outsiders, while to contemporaries and not only the unchurched, the present Church seems unbearably preachy, merciless and pettily puritanical.
Why so many observations about a matter that is perhaps over and done with? There is a passage by Ernst Jünger that has troubled me deeply. It is in his collection of aphorisms Über Autor und Autorschaft (On Author and Authorship): “For conservatives […] the point comes when the files are closed. Then tradition may no longer be defended. The fathers are worshiped in silence and in dreams. When the files are closed, let them rest, held in trust for future historians.” This is the question that I am not able to answer: Is the liturgy being celebrated in the photo I mentioned earlier, amidst and in disregard of terror and destruction, truly a testimony of victory over history, or is it an infinitely noble, poignant farewell picture? Remember, the Orthodox churches of Russia and Greece, Egypt, Syria and India hold fast to this image of the liturgy I described in full conviction. These churches are not insignificant parts of Christendom and have truly been tested in the fiery furnace; not Rahner’s “tragicomic marginal figures who failed in their humanity,” among which I gladly count myself. In the course of the ecumenism required of us, whether we can constructively recall our own abundance of traditions will depend on whether the Church is entirely subject to the laws of history, sociology, psychology and politics, or whether there is something in her that defies these laws because it comes from other realms.
(1) Speech held at the invitation of the Bishop of Limburg/Lahn, His Excellency Dr. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, February 13, 2013 at the Ash Wednesday of the Artists in the Haus am Dom in Frankfurt-am-Main.
(2) The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is the leading newspaper in Germany.
Martin Mosebach, born in 1951 in Frankfurt am Main, has lived there as a freelance writer since completing his state law exams. He has received numerous awards including the 1999 Heimito von Doderer Literature Prize, the 2002 Kleist Prize, the 2007 Georg Büchner Prize, and the 2013 Literature Prize of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
Translated by Faith Ann Gibson. Translation by kind permission of Martin Mosebach.